Five out of the Pac-12 North's six schools qualified for a bowl game in 2013. With plenty of talent returning to the North in 2014, it should be another terrific battle at the top. Stanford has won the division crown the last two years; can either of the Oregon or Washington schools dethrone the Cardinal?
Here are our way-too-early Pac-12 North power rankings.
1. Oregon Ducks
2013 Finish: 11-2, second in Pac-12 North, No. 9 in AP and Coaches
Returning Starters: 14
When the regular season ended, it seemed Oregon and Stanford would be 1A and 1B heading into 2014.
Then word came that quarterback Marcus Mariota would return for his junior season, as would starting center Hroniss Grasu and stud cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford, on the other hand, would lose guard David Yankey, tackle Cameron Fleming and safety Ed Reynolds to the NFL in addition to All-Pac-12 defenders Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy graduating.
For those reasons alone, the Ducks head into 2014 as the favorites to win the North. It remains to be seen if they can actually beat Stanford this season – fortunately for coach Mark Helfrich, the game will be played in Eugene – but they have the talent to begin the regular season as a top-five team. Fourteen starters are returning, and years of killing it on the recruiting trail (the Ducks rank as the division's top recruiter over the last five years, via the 247Sports Composite) will really start to show.
Even with offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas going pro, Oregon should have one of the top offenses in the country behind the arm and legs of Mariota. The defense should also be solid despite the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, and with UO's ability to score a bunch of points in a hurry, that should be good enough to at least keep the Ducks in the hunt for the Pac-12 title, if not the national championship picture.
2013 Finish: 11-3, first in Pac-12 North, No. 11 in AP, No. 10 in Coaches
Returning Starters: 10
No roster in the country will be hit harder by the offseason than the Cardinal. And if losing so many starters to either graduation or the pros wasn't a big enough loss, defensive coordinator Derek Mason left town to become the new head coach at Vanderbilt, taking linebackers coach David Kotulski with him. Quarterbacks coach (and stud recruiter) Mike Sanford also left the program to join the new staff at Boise State.
If there is good news for David Shaw's program, it's that it has recruited offensive linemen well enough to create a nearly all-new starting five that should prove capable. Andrus Peat, one of Stanford's many former five-star blockers, picked up experience at tackle in 2013.
Also, quarterback Kevin Hogan will be back in 2014. Hogan will also have his No. 1 target, Ty Montgomery, back for his senior campaign. The defense will have to be rebuilt, and the schedule is brutal, but if Stanford can find adequate replacements for Murphy, Skov and running back Tyler Gaffney, the Cardinal could repeat once again as North champions.
3. Oregon State Beavers
2013 Finish: 7-6, fourth in Pac-12 North, unranked
Returning Starters: 14
The Beavers were up and down all last season. But with a solid core of players set to return in 2014, OSU could be a darkhorse threat to Oregon and Stanford, especially if quarterback Sean Mannion can put up another 4,000-yard season.
The biggest challenge to Oregon State will be replacing Brandin Cooks, who was arguably the best wide receiver in the country. Mannion has an NFL-caliber arm, but he will need another wideout to emerge -- the Beavers threw 27.9 percent of their passes to Cooks last year, one of the highest numbers in the country. Look for Terron Ward and Storm Woods, who split carries last year, to continue being an effective one-two punch out of the backfield.
The Beavers lost defensive end Scott Crichton to the NFL earlier than they'd hoped for, but eight starters on defense are set to return in 2014. The defense really struggled last season, ranking 91st nationally in scoring defense, though that number should end up better. Depending on just how improved the defense is, OSU could probably finish anywhere from second to fifth in the North.
2013 Finish: 9-4, third in in Pac-12 North, No. 25 in AP, unranked in Coaches
Returning Starters: 13
The Huskies will look nothing like they did in 2013. Head coach Steve Sarkisian is gone, and Boise State great Chris Petersen is in with a brand-new coaching staff. Keith Price is gone after a handful of successful seasons as the starting quarterback. Stud running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will both be NFL-bound in a couple of months.
As with any new coach, it's tough to know what to expect under Petersen in the early going. Cyler Miles played well in backup duty of Price last season and is expected to be named the starter in the spring, though we won't really know how good he is until he faces the grind of a nine-game conference slate. On defense, look for versatile linebacker Shaq Thompson, who could be in for a breakout junior season, to headline a solid defense that returns seven starters.
Much like Oregon State, UW could finish anywhere from in the middle of the North. Along with Washington State, there just isn't much separating these three teams right now. We'll gain a lot of clarity on this division during the rest of the offseason.
5. Washington State Cougars
2013 Finish: 6-7, fifth in Pac-12 North, unranked
Returning Starters: 14
Year two of the Mike Leach era in Pullman was mostly successful, with the Cougars becoming bowl eligible for the first time in a decade. It seemed Wazzu was on its way to a comfortable New Mexico Bowl win, but then the unthinkable happened in the final minutes to put a damper on a fun season.
Fortunately for Washington State, quite a bit of talent returns in 2014. Quarterback Connor Halliday will be back as a senior with a solid (yet turnover-prone) season under his belt, though he will lose the entire right side of his offensive line to graduation. If the Cougs can protect Halliday in the pocket, the offense should continue to improve under Leach's guidance. Eight starters come back, including Halliday's three favorite targets.
Defense will likely be what determines just where Washington State finishes. The unit ranked 97th nationally in scoring defense last year, and that number was propelled a bit by allowing 10 points total to Southern Utah and Idaho. If the Cougs can shore up the defense a bit – six starters do return – they could finish as high as third in the North.
6. Cal Golden Bears
2013 Finish: 1-11, last in Pac-12 North, unranked
Returning Starters: 16
It was a season to forget for Sonny Dykes and the Golden Bears in 2013. Unless Cal makes drastic improvements during the spring and summer months, California seems likely to finish in last place once again in 2014.
A load of starters return, including almost the whole offense. (Curiously, Cal lost as many players to NFL Draft early entry as Alabama and USC did, though at least a couple of those losses won't be disastrous.) But after winning just one game with that group, that may not be the best thing. Jared Goff returns at quarterback after breaking a bunch of school records as a freshman, and he should only continue getting better.
There's just not a whole lot around him on either side of the ball, and even if the Bears do improve, the other five teams in the North are clearly better on paper right now. Four or five wins in 2014 would be a big step forward for Dykes and the program. A one- or two-win season would make 2015 a high-pressure year.